‘That was a cool feeling’: An oral history of Kirk Gibson’s iconic 1988 home run
Oct.15, 1988. Game 1 of the World Series, and a familiar script has the A’s leading the Dodgers 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth inning at Dodger Stadium. Oakland slugger Jose Canseco had hit a grand slam in the second inning. Ace Dave Stewart pitched eight solid innings, then handed the game over to closer Dennis Eckersley, who had saved 45 games during the regular season and allowed just five home runs in 72 2/3/innings.
But with one swing of the bat, Kirk Gibson flipped the script. With two outs and a runner on first, the Dodgers outfielder limped to the plate to pinch hit for reliever Alejandro Pena. Gibson was a virtual cripple: He had a pulled left hamstring and a swollen right knee, and was thought to be unavailable to play.
The rest, of course, is history. Gibson hit a two-run home run into the right field seats to give the Dodgers a 5-4 win. The World Series has seen 15 walk-off home runs — think Bill Mazeroski, Carlton Fisk, Joe Carter, Kirby Puckett and David Freese — but for Hollywood-wouldn’t-even-dream-of-this drama, none of them compare to Gibson’s. That afternoon, he had had injections in both legs. He was in such pain that he didn’t take part in pregame ceremonies or batting practice. He told his wife, JoAnn, to go home because he wasn’t going to play. During the game, he iced his legs in the clubhouse and watched the game on TV.
Eckersley, who had walked just 11 men all season, was coming off an MVP performance in Oakland’s sweep of the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series. He got two quick outs, then issued a base on balls to pinch hitter Mike Davis. Gibson, the next hitter, started his at-bat with three feeble swings, but as the count went to 3 and 2, Davis stole second, meaning Gibson only needed a base hit to send Davis home with the tying run. He did a little better than that.
On the 25th anniversary of Gibson’s heroics, SI.com caught up with key players in the game and some others who helped set up the moment, including the legendary scout who prepped the Dodgers on Eckersley (and his propensity for throwing backdoor sliders ) and the clubhouse attendant who helped Gibson get ready for his history-making at-bat.
Interviews by Mel Antonen; text by Antonen and Ted Keith.
KIRK GIBSON, Dodgers: I was hurting pretty bad. I had a torn hamstring tendon in my left leg and a strained medial collateral ligament in my right leg. I hurt my hamstring in Game 5 [of the NLCS] against the Mets and got a shot right after that game from Dr. [Frank] Jobe. I didn’t play in Game 6, but I did play in Game 7. Then I went to break up a double play and I slid funky because of my other leg, and that’s when I stretched my medial collateral.
That morning [of World Series Game 1] I walked across my living room and said, “Yes, I think I can play on this.” I had that football mentally that I was tough and can deal with anything. Then I jogged across the living room and it hurt. I said, “Oh boy, this isn’t good.”
I got into the clubhouse early, and they injected me in both legs. I didn’t think I’d get to the point where I could play the whole game, so I was just thinking of making any kind of contribution.
During the game, I was hanging in the clubhouse wearing my Dodgers shorts and a T-shirt. I was just sitting there watching the game on TV, icing. Ice on, taking it off. Ice on, taking it off. Ice on, taking it off. I had two bags of ice, one on each leg.
The other thing is that my wife [JoAnn] wasn’t there because I told her in the third inning to go home. My son, Kirk Robert — he was 2 at the time — was a rambunctious kid running around. She was in the family room, but she came and knocked on the clubhouse door about the third inning. I answered it and told her I didn’t think I was going to play so she might as well go home and watch it on TV.
We got to the eighth inning and I started to think about the pitcher’s spot coming up. I just kept playing mind games with myself, that if I had to hit today, that I’d be OK because the fans would cheer me and I wouldn’t hurt after that.
The next thing you know, I remember on TV, they were panning the dugout before going to a commercial and [NBC announcer] Vin Scully says, “There is no Kirk Gibson. It doesn’t look like he will be playing tonight.”
I got up and said, “My ass.” I got dressed and told Mitch Poole to set the batting tee up.
MITCH POOLE, Dodgers batboy and assistant clubhouse manager: I was 24 back then. On this particular night, I was folding towels, picking up laundry from batting practice and washing it.
Late in the game, Kirk was on the table in the trainer’s room when he asked me to get his uniform, which was hanging in his locker. Then I met him at the top of the tunnel at the half-cage, something we use for batting practice. I started setting up balls on the tee. He showed me where he wanted me to put the ball for the back-door slider. And then, after putting the balls on the tee, I started soft-tossing balls for him to hit, to that location of the back-door slider.
I was sitting on the ball bucket and all of a sudden, he stops, looks down at me and says, “This could be the script.” Those were his exact words. I’ll never forget them.
Then he tells me, “Go tell Tommy that I can hit.” I was in my jeans and T-shirt, so I couldn’t go into the dugout. But I yelled at Tommy from one end of the dugout to the other. He said, “What do you want?” And, I said, “Tommy, get over here. Gibby says he can hit.” Tommy ran right up the ramp.
DAVE STEWART, A’s pitcher: Tony [La Russa, the Oakland manager] took me out after eight innings. It never crossed my mind that I was out of the game. It shocked me. I had quite a few complete games that year and pitched a lot of one-run games. I thought I had earned the right to finish it. He told me before the last out that Eck needed work, and that I was done.
GIBSON: When I said, “My ass,” I got up, took the ice off and put my uniform on. I put on the bare essentials for a uniform. I was lightly dressed. And I walked from there, with the cold knees, to the batting tee and into the game. From the time I got up to the time I was at the plate was probably less than 10 minutes. I probably took 10, 15 swings on the tee, and they weren’t pretty.
I told Mitch to go down and get Tommy. I remember Tommy grumbling at Mitch and saying how he couldn’t be bothered, that he was managing a baseball game. Tommy came running up there — I should say waddling up there — and I said, “Hit [Mike] Davis eighth, and I’ll hit for the pitcher if you want me to.”
He said, “Hell yeah, I want you to.” He told me to stay up there. He didn’t want me to be on the bench because he didn’t want Oakland to look over and see me.
As Gibson prepared, Eckersley was pitching the ninth inning. He got Dodgers catcher Mike Scioscia to pop out to shortstop and then struck out third baseman Jeff Hamilton. All that stood between the A’s and a Game 1 win was Mike Davis, who had hit .265 with 22 home runs for Oakland in 1987, but just .196 with two home runs for L.A in ‘88.
MIKE DAVIS, Dodgers outfielder: I knew all those guys from Oakland because I had played with them the year before. I wasn’t expecting a walk because Eck didn’t walk many batters. And to say that I was in the middle of my worst year would [be] an understatement. Eck was probably thinking of the guy that he played with in Oakland. But this was different. I was having a bad year.
DENNIS ECKERSLEY, A’s pitcher: I was giving him too much credit. What I did wrong more than anything was that I walked him. I had respect for his power. On that last pitch, I was outside, way outside. It was brutal. I was remembering his home runs.
Dodger Stadium erupted when Gibson stepped from the dugout. He applied pine tar to his bat, took a few practice swings and stepped into the batter’s box on the left side of the plate.
TONY LA RUSSA, Oakland manager: The No. 1 question I get about the game is, “Was it surprising to see Kirk Gibson get that at-bat?” And the answer is no. He’s a true competitor.
ECKERSLEY: It took Gibson forever to get up to the plate. FOREVER. It was grueling waiting for him to get to the plate. We assumed he wasn’t going to play. So I was surprised. I had a long time to think about Gibson coming into the game. You could have written a book in the time that it took him to get ready.
GIBSON: I know Dennis said that, but I didn’t think I took that long. I got up, put my helmet on and walked straight up there.
Once at the plate, Gibson swung at the first two pitches and fouled them both back. He swung at the third as well and dribbled the ball up the first base line but it trickled foul as he limped up the base path. On the seventh pitch of the at-bat, Eckersley missed outside as Davis stole second.
GIBSON: My mindset was, Let’s go. I was just trying to get to the top of the order when I stepped to the plate. That’s all I was thinking about. I was hitting in the No. 9 slot and I was trying to get to our leadoff batter, Steve Sax, who was on deck. I was in survival mode, hitting against the best there is and not hitting in ideal conditions.
STEVE SAX, Dodgers second baseman: I was thinking about what I needed to do to win the game. It turns out I didn’t have to worry about it. When Kirk trickled that ball down the line, I was thinking, “Someone should shoot this animal and take him out of his misery.”
DAVIS: When I got to first, Eck threw over a couple of times, and I wanted to make sure I didn’t get picked off. If that had happened, you would have had to bury me at second base. I had been watching Eck’s move and I thought there was good chance I could steal. I pinched the stripe on my uniform pants to signal our third-base coach [Joe Amalfitano]. He pinched the stripe on his pants and that meant the steal was on. I stole because Eck was really focused so much on going home.
LA RUSSA: When Davis steals second, the No. 1 thought was to fear the worst. I thought, “Oh man, [Gibson] can tie the game with a base hit.” We had seen them so many times when we were watching on tape when he was with Detroit. Gibson has terrific power and I knew if he squares one up, he can hit a line drive into the gap, and every once in a while, he hits a home run.
GIBSON: I name my two-strike approach my emergency stroke. I said to myself, “This is a full emergency, and let’s go.” You’ve got to will yourself and that’s what I did. I kept willing myself to hit the ball.
At some point in the at-bat, I started thinking about what Mel Didier told me, that every time Eckersley gets to 3-2, he throws a back-door slider. Here I get to 3-2 and Dennis goes into the stretch position. I call time out and step out. I said to myself, “Pardner, sure as I am standing here breathing, you are going to see 3-2 backdoor slider.” Those are Mel Didier’s exact words to me.
MEL DIDIER, Dodgers advance scout: It was broken down more than that. I said that if Eck faces a left-handed batter only on a 3-2 pitch with the tying or winning run on second and/or third, I’ll bet that you are going to get a backdoor slider. I had seen Eck do this, not all the time, but in big games with great hitters in crucial situations. I’d seen the A’s play 25 or 30 times, and at the end of the season I followed them closely.
We had a group of scouts prepare a booklet for the Dodgers on all the A’s players. We broke down all of their pitchers and hitters. On Eckersley’s page, I had underlined that he threw a backdoor slider to lefties in that situation.
On Friday, the workout day before the start of the series, Tommy Lasorda had us meet with the players. We gave each player a booklet and went over each one of the A’s players. I had the pitchers and was the last one to talk. When I got to Eckersley, I turned and pointed to the left-handed batters — there were four or five of them sitting together – and I said, “Remember if there is a 3-2 count with Eckersley, he’s going to throw a backdoor slider.”